As I read the news of his gentle departure at the ripe age of 101, I recall Sadhu Ittiyavirah with love and reverence. He is a modern day Tathagathan, who ‘just went by,’ trying his bit to make the world a better place. I would consider him one of the old-time STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) persons, who perhaps didn't ever come across the acronym. By the time, STEM became popular, his faculties had lost their old-time sharpness to grasp anything new.
Otherwise, from the days I had begun to interact with him as a fresher in Social Work education at Rajagiri College of Social Sciences, where he used to bless us with his presence annually, introducing his new books to the college library and receiving gratefully, whatever we deemed fit to give, I had seen him as a sharp-witted, keen to grasp kind person. I tried to make his arrival on the campus, often unannounced, occasions for interaction with the budding social work trainees, and he would engage them for some time with his smile, and his heuristic method, and with its definite link with science (read, nature).
Most of his short lessons in his 100-odd books are based on the basic science he learnt from his PDC or B Sc classes at SH College. (I am not sure, what was that he had studied at SH). But Sadhu Ittiyavirah had this unique trait of taking a phenomenon of nature, and then linking it to life and life beyond the physical. An amazing way towards problem-centred, life-oriented, enquiry-based, experimental learning for life. It had science, mathematics, rudiments of engineering and technology and above all, link to life.
I would call him STEM Sadhu, who was full of STEAM (+A for arts) and had he been recognized and supported properly, could have upscaled it all into STREAM (+R for research). His own house and the land around it were also fields of experiments for him. And he went about, with his disarming smile, doing good in his own way, harming no one and spreading goodness.
The last time I met him, after almost a gap of 6 or 7 years, was in 2020, at his home near Kothamangalam. I went to greet him as the head of his alma mater. Though he knew me rather well, by then, nearing 100, he was not able to place me. When one is not able to do that, in spite of all his goodness, we feel the disconnect. But I did spend quite some time at his place, listening to him, a bit disoriented, but still with a passion and enthusiasm, sparkle in the eyes and smile on his lips. I have pictures taken with him.
I first heard about him from some casual reference made by my mother who spoke about Sadhu Ittiyavirah. The name itself was a strange one! But I got to see him, and converse with him several times, almost two decades later, after my having been ordained a minister in the catholic church. He was a radical who took to Jesus-way radically, feeling that the Jesuit (the conventional Catholic religious life) was not radical enough. That was a daring step, and perhaps, he gave himself the monicker 'sadhu'.
Sadhu would mean 'right' or 'valid', but derivatively, in Malayalam, it meant as a noun 'someone who was poor or good or harmless', or as an adjective 'poor' or 'harmless'. He lived as a 'sadhu' with God alone as his asset, and the rest 'asadhu' (invalid). But he is said to have finally given himself to the counsel of the very many of his 'beneficiaries' in the Church, to adopt the conventional family life, though at a very late stage (as per conventional age-norms) in his life.
After I shared my notes on him among the friends' circle, many who were senior to me by 10 or more years, responded how he was a household name in the school circles across the Christian belt of Kerala. He would appear in his coarse khadi dhoti and jubba (kurta), with a cloth bag slung on his shoulder, and would narrate stories, sing songs and teach the youngsters lessons for life. When I began seeing him, he had shifted to pants for his lowers, and I didn't observe them to be coarse cotton, but khadi kurta still held the sway.
I deem myself blessed for having had the 'satsang' of this great soul. He literally took to Jesus' way of growing great by being small, who conquered hearts with his smile, and who persevered till the last to have lasted over a century! He was someone who dared to walk it alone, and didn't bother about the consequences. May your frail frame hold no fear of death and decay dear elder brother, dear fellow traveller and pilgrim; continue to walk with us in the communion of saints that we too may find the joy of learning and discovering the connect with the phenomena – life-text-context and beyond!
P.S. Though my own holiness is not growing, my company of saintly people is swelling -- Mother Teresa, Rani Maria, Sadhu Ittiyavirah, my great grand-uncle, Ven. Varghese Payyappilly, my young student Ajna... Hope that will merge with the countless witnesses above, whose company, I hope to enjoy irrespective of its coordinates!